How the Jewish Prayer Service Resembles Pentecostal Worship

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April 23, 2011

“The most direct means for attaching ourselves to God in this material world is through music and song.” –Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

“Singing in the Spirit will be a great part of the coming revival. There will be whole services in which congregations will stand in the glory and worship in the Spirit.” –Sister Ruth Heflin, 1990/2000 (p. 190)

Most visitors to a mainstream Jewish prayer service would not typically describe what they witness as “ecstatic.” In Orthodox contexts, the mitzvah is to say the prayers, not to have an ecstatic experience. Even in non-Orthodox contexts, the main goal of the service is often seen as “getting through the prayers,” with perhaps some time for reflection or contemplation. But outside of Hasidic, neo-Hasidic, and Jewish Renewal circles, as well as a few unusual congregations like B’nai Jeshurun in New York, there is little ecstasy in shul. Singing, yes; community-building, yes – but ecstatic experience, not so much.

Andrea Wershof Schwartz

In the summer of 2005, Newsweek Magazine devoted an entire issue on the subject of “Spirituality in America.” The premise? There is a growing fascination with the ecstatic experience: to know God directly; to viscerally feel God within; to have the ecstatic, transcendent personal experience of God. People want to open to God and pray to God out loud; joyfully, ecstatically, with their whole body and spirit. To be transformed by that experience. To transcend, to ascend, to the realm of glory; to the rapturous place where God’s presence is felt and where miracles actually occur.

The most visible example of congregational ecstatic experience is presently found in Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical, or gospel Christian churches. “Praise,” “worship,” and “glory;” most Jews would identify these terms as coming from the Christian worship service and would not associate the concepts with Jewish services. In fact, however, there are interesting similarities between the Pentecostal and Jewish modes of worship. Though the experience of a holiness, Pentecostal, or charismatic Christian worship service may not overtly resemble that of a typical Jewish service, the underlying structure of the Christian service is actually based on the framework of the earlier form. During the course of her ministry of a Pentecostal church in East Jerusalem, Reverend Ruth Heflin developed a deep sense of the spiritual order of that Judeo-Christian worship service as a path of ascension, designed to evoke a profound mystical experience. This understanding led Sister Ruth to develop her simple yet revelatory recipe for raising the congregation to a group experience of ecstasy: “praise” to “worship” to “glory.” This model fits well into the structure of the Jewish Shacharit service.

“T’hilim,” Praise: the realm of thanksgiving for what God’s actions

The traditional Jewish religious service begins with Psalms (t’hilim), prayers that are full of the word “Hallelujah.” Understood in the evangelical tradition, “the command to praise God is the most frequent command given in the Scriptures. The injunction to ‘praise the Lord’ occurs over fifty times…(and the word) praise is mentioned 330 times,” notes Rev. Fuchsia Pickett in her book Worship Him.

“Praise” is an expression of sincere appreciation, for the magnitude and wondrousness of God’s creations and actions, for God’s great love, etc. When one arrives at a house of worship and begin to pray, one is not always in the particular feeling state of gratefulness to God. The psalms at the beginning of the service serve to encourage the conscious, willful opening of the heart to God; an opening of oneself to Spirit.

The point of praising God at the beginning of the service is to consciously and intentionally raise what might be called the group’s energetic state. Gospel singing is active consciousness; directed will, otherwise known as “intention.” The importance of this consciousness-altering technique is known to spiritual masters. Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, for instance, in his book The Mysticism of Sound and Music (1991/1996), says that attuning ourselves to praise God turns consciousness into will. Praise turns out to be one of the most powerful techniques for opening the heart.

Gospel praise songs follow the rules of engaging the heart, using simple words, present tense action verbs, words a child would use–words the heart can understand. “The Lord heals; He saves.…He comforts; He cares; He provides” (Heflin, pp. 93-94). Catchy melodies, repetition, call and response, and chanting let the heart sing along.

Anthropologist Michael Winkelman (2003), an expert in shamanic ritual, has found that the positive power of group praise and affirmation produces euphoria, dissolves self-boundaries, creates shared experience, and actually “enhances psychobiological synchronization within the group,” resulting in a group identity (pp. 390-391). The congregation begins to resonate together, becoming a collective, coherent organization; a holy choir. It is from within this aroused and synchronized group state that the experience of God is accessed by the congregation.

“Praising” together as a congregation can be said to be an induction process of “tuning to God’s frequency,” so to speak. This group coherence creates an atmospheric change in the room. It is palpable, thick, hypnotic. This felt sense is sometimes referred to as the “holy hush.” This is a realm of resonant entrainment and trance; “entrancement.” This is the “entrance” to the realm of worship; the entering into the presence of God.

“T’filah,” Worship: the realm of devotion to God

The purpose of all prayer is to uplift the words, to return them to their source above… The words fly upward and come before Him.
As God turns to look at the ascending word, life flows through all the worlds and prayer receives its answer. (Likkutim Yekarim 10a, trans. by Arthur Green and Barry Holtz in “Your Word is Fire”)

Prayer, or T’filah in Hebrew, is also called Avodah, putting oneself in the service of God. A great deal of what we call “prayer” in our services is directed at ourselves—reminding ourselves to love God, that there is only one God, how great God is, our obligations to God, and so on. But the essence of prayer only occurs when we are actually talking to God, actually opening our hearts to God. This is an essentially dualistic enterprise, but a dualism leading to unification. Professor of religion Donald Miller speaks of “worship…as a form of sacred lovemaking,” an intimate personal conversation with God (Poloma, 1997). As Ted Andrews writes in his book Sacred Sounds (1992/2005):

Prayer is dialogue that institutes change. It is a dialogue with the universe and with the divine. Most importantly, it is a dialogue with those parts of yourself that resonate with the divine. The invocation within prayer unites our meditative state of consciousness with the power of the Word and with our innate force of will.

In the praise part of the service, God has been typically addressed in the third person, as “He/She.” But as the service enters its worship phase, worshipers transition to a personal “I-You” relationship, beginning to address God as “You.” Time slows down in this space. This is a realm of devotion; where one has the feeling of sitting at the foot of God and God is listening. One may pour out one’s heart, one’s most intimate feelings, in deep private conversation with the Source of All. “(In) the atmosphere of worship…(we find ourselves) weep(ing) before the Lord” (Heflin, p. 92). Sister Ruth expresses it like this:

There is a realm in God so great that, even though you may have come with a dozen petitions and requests, …when He asks, “Was there something you wanted to say to Me?” you reply, “No, Lord.” “Was there something you wanted to ask Me?” “No, Lord!” No questions, no requests, no petitions. Everything has been satisfied. In His presence the things that seemed big to us become so insignificant. (Heflin, pp. 104-105)

God becomes the Beloved: We are immersed in God’s unconditional love, surrounded by the fragrant perfume of that love. It is at this point that we notice that all our senses have become alive to God. We have entered the ecstatic realm of “glory.”

“Kavod”: Glory: The felt experience of God

What is the realm of glory? Sister Ruth describes the glory realm as: the revelation of the presence of God. It is the manifestation of His presence….Earth has the atmosphere of air, whereas the heavenly atmosphere is glory, His presence. When glory comes down, it’s a bit of Heaven’s atmosphere coming down to us, a taste of His manifest presence. (p. 143)

When the experience of Glory arrives, one stands in the Glory and rests in the Spirit; merged with God in ecstasy, in unification, in thick, fragrant love, in bliss; basking in God’s grace. The glory realm represents a shift in our relationship with God. We are no longer focused on the heart relationship as in the worship realm; but rather on the awesome holiness and absolute beauty of God. This is the realm in which we “(c)ry out in His presence, not from pain but from ecstasy,” says Sister Ruth (p. 119). “This is why the angels cry, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” claims Sister Ruth (Heflin, p. 156).

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…In an ecstasy of spirit, with pure speech and holy melody, all of them respond in awe as one, and cry: ‘holy, holy, holy, is the ruler of the multitudes of heaven. The whole world is saturated with the divine glory!’” (Isaiah 6:3)

In the charismatic church context, sociologist Margaret Poloma (1997) quotes participants as reporting “The anointing seems to literally come down from the heavens, I experience it as something like rain, joyous, thick, palpable, creamy, liquid, love, light, rain, that heals.”

If one has not personally experienced the realm of glory, one might be inclined to read material about the state as metaphor, as poetry, but those who have experienced it report a sensory phenomenon, an ecstatic synesthetic experience. “Synesthesia” is the experiencing by one sensory organ of a sensation normally attributed to a different sensory organ. It is caused by the confusion or crossing of sensory channels, as a result of a “disinhibition” of normal sensory filtering processes. The experience of glory is aroused and “induced” through group excitation and suggestion and seems to be a threshold experience or phase shift, a sudden change in perception at a switch-point, writes consciousness author Ken Wilber (1998).

Most of us have become accustomed to associate the English word “glory” with radiance, a light phenomenon. In Hebrew, there are many words used to describe the radiance, luminosity, magnificence, and splendor aspects of glory; hadar, tiferet, hod, zohar. There are several more words used to describe glorification; hitpa’er (to magnify), halel (to praise), romam (to lift up). These are the meanings usually assumed by worshipers using the English term “glory”. But the Hebrew term most often used in biblical references for “glory” is the word kavod. Kavod is used in Hebrew to mean “honor,” and its root is the same as for the words for “weight” and for “gravity.” So when the angels sing “the whole world is filled with God’s glory,” the meaning connotes God’s honor, weight, or gravity,sensations not necessarily synonymous with aspects of light. Glory is a change in perception. Perhaps we could say that glory is the sensation of the “gravity” of God.

The appearance of God’s glory on the mountaintop where Moses received the tablets of the ten commandments, is also called kavod. It was the kavod of the Lord that was experienced by the people as a pillar of devouring flame, smoke and intense sound, covered by a cloud (Chapters 19 and 24 of the Book of Exodus). And when Moses asks to have a vision of God’s “glory” (Chap 33), he uses the word kavod. However, the “glory” or “luminosity” that Moses’ face radiates on coming down from the mountain (Chap 34) is termed in the text, karan ohr, “rays of light.” Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon developed this term in detail, positing the kavod as a hypostasis of God – a divine emanation later associated by Kabbalists with the Shechinah – and the mechanism by which the Jewish prophet experiences revelation of the divine.

In the Evangelical context, Sister Ruth reflects on the power of ‘one accord,’ noting that “the glory doesn’t come until we’re in one spirit. When oneness of spirit comes, unity comes forth. When unity comes forth, immediately the glory falls” (Heflin, p. 153). In the Evangelical view, it is in the ecstatic realm of glory that we open ourselves to the miraculous; where we receive visions, have revelations, experience healing miracles. People talk about seeing the Face of God. “When the glory comes, two things happen. One, the spirit of revelation begins to work in our hearts. Two, we are changed by the glory.”

There will always be those who are drawn to seek the ecstatic altered state experience of intimacy with the divine. Though the Jewish approach to ecstasy is often seen as quite different from the Evangelical and Pentecostal ones, I hope that these parallels suggest ways to reclaim the experience behind the words.


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